news:rewired - Startup culture in a big broadcaster

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Stijn Lehaen 1

How do you bring start-up thinking to a traditional broadcaster? That’s what Stijn Lehaen set out to explain in the closing session of news:rewired yesterday. The Belgian broadcaster was struggling online, at least in comparison to its traditional presence. So it set up a startup-style division called VRT Start-up at the edge of the organisation, headed by Lehaen.

They worked with Made by Many to implement the lean startup approach to working. They have user insight sessions every two weeks, where they talk with pairs of friends about what they expect from media. Why friends? Well, the idea is to get them debating between themselves, so they forget they are talking to the broadcaster.

Power to the prototypes

They’re trying to develop as many solutions as possible, and they test them by by building very simple prototypes – as simple as a sketch on paper. The basic nature of this helps promote honesty – if people feel you’ve spent a long time on building one, they’re less likely to be critical. They have a small content team to build out the surviving prototypes, and then they move into a beta state.

They started with the idea of making news for teenagers and young people, in the digital world. They look at them as the YouTube generation, who want choice in their media. This tends to be 16-24 year olds, but it can go much older. For this group, a new media product needs social media promotion – and to become part of people’s existing timelines.

The first prototype they built out was 6things – a simple aggregation website with the most interesting six things for young people they’d found that day. It was responsive from the start, and promoted via the Facebook newsfeed. Problems? Everyone’s doing this sort of list curation, and they were too slow compared to the competition, because they were publishing at a set time of day.

Power to the Pivot

Stijn Lehaen

So, they pivoted the model – they switched from daily editions to a continuous flow, on a site now called Sambal. And they started creating YouTube-style video, rather than broadcast-style. A strong branding around Sambal was vital, because their content was being shared outside their own environment. They moved on from aggregation to creation, trying to find unusual approaches to stories. This led to experimenting with the content mix. The core categories were:

  • beautiful
  • entertaining
  • serious
  • LOL
  • amazing
  • geeky

Video has to be very short – over 30 seconds is just too long. So, they launched Ninja News, a social-focused quick news service.

Their organisation is in constant experiment, with freedom to fail, and a total focus on the user.

Unanswered Questions

Sadly, the conference was over-running and there was no time for questions. The key one I wanted to ask was: how are they taking this experimentation back into the core business. These skunkworks-style business units can be great for generating ideas, but there is a string tendency for the main business’s corporate “immune system” to eventually kill them off because they don’t fit the existing models and processes – I’d have liked to see some sense of how they hope to keep their innovation alive in the long tedm/


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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.